CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, Fla. — United Launch Alliance employees on Wednesday were celebrating another flawless Atlas 5 mission, placing an Air Force communications satellite into a customized geosynchronous transfer orbit after coasting for more than three hours.
It is the type of national security space mission that today only ULA is able to perform and for which the Air Force pays a premium price. Things could change in the future if the Air Force is successful nurturing new competitors to take on ULA. SpaceX three years ago moved in to grab a share of the military launch business but is not yet able to challenge ULA for the more complex missions like the one the Atlas 5 flew on Wednesday, which was ULA’s 50th for the U.S. Air Force.
The Air Force this month awarded three contracts to Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman and ULA to further develop their launch vehicles so they can meet national security requirements, which include flying to nine different orbits. ULA is developing the Vulcan Centaur to replace the Atlas 5 for military missions. Congress in 2015 passed a law to prohibit the Pentagon from launching satellites from vehicles, like the Atlas 5, that use the Russian RD-180 engine. The Air Force will not be able to order any more Atlas 5 launches after Dec. 31, 2022.
ULA President and CEO Tory Bruno says he welcomes the competition. “I think this is good for the country,” he told SpaceNews on Wednesday. “We’re seeing a broadening of the lift industrial base.”
The Air Force is “looking into the future and the flexibility they might need,” Bruno said. “One of the ways you get flexibility when you have uncertainty is to make sure you can still go to every single orbit, go there with all the mass you can take, and maybe ask for a little bit more.”
There are eight orbits today where the military places satellites and ULA is the only company that can fly to all of them, he said. The next-generation launch development program, called Launch Service Agreement, calls for nine orbits, with the new one being “more difficult.”
In the LSA program, the Air Force will give the three winners a couple of years to develop their rockets and then will move to a second phase where those three companies, and any other launch provider that chooses to bid, will compete to be selected for the procurement of launch services. Only two will be picked to share a yet-to-be-determined number of launches over a five-year period.
“The point of LSA is for the government to exit with two providers that can indeed fly to every mission, so they can compete all the missions,” Bruno said. By the second phase of LSA, he said, “I do not expect that we’ll be the only ones to be able to fly all nine. The whole point is to have two guys that can fly everything.”
With a competitive industrial base, he said, there will be “no more missions that you have to give to one provider and where you have no backup,” Bruno added. “We need assured access to space if something happened to one of them.”
Bruno said he is confident that the Vulcan will “compete very well.” ULA has yet to be briefed by the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center on the details of how the Vulcan was evaluated. “We did see our scores and evaluation sheet,” he said, but would not discuss details in the middle of a competition. “We are really pleased with our ability to articulate the value we brought.”
Air Force officials said they are confident the service can sustain two domestic competitors and avoid a repeat of what happened in the 1990s with the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program. There were at the time two competitors — McDonnell Douglas (later acquired by Boeing) and Lockheed Martin — but the commercial launch business dried up and the Air Force did not have enough work to keep both of them afloat. The companies merged their launch operations into what became United Launch Alliance in 2006, which operated as a monopoly until SpaceX got certified to fly military satellites in 2015.
“A lot of folks involved in all of this discussion today don’t grasp what happened back then,” said Bruno. “It’s an important issue.”
He believes there is now “enough space in the market for two domestic launch providers,” and the Air Force must have “at least two to have redundancy and assured access.”
Bruno said trying to sustain any more than two suppliers would be unrealistic. When EELV started in 1995, the industry was anticipating that “data and internet would all go to space.” Then the industry built fiber optic on the ground, “and the bottom fell out and the satellite industry collapsed,” he said. “We could face that again if we are not careful.”
Commercial space is actually flat and could decline in the next five or so years, Bruno said. A surge in launch activity at Cape Canaveral over the last couple of years was the result of “one provider” that has been flying backlogged missions, he said, referring to SpaceX.
“The GEO satellite market has declined a little bit. Other markets are currently flat,” he said. Excitement these days about “the Internet is going to space” and the development of large constellations in low Earth orbit may be overblown, said Bruno. “The size of the constellations has been shrinking,” he said. “The architectures have matured and they figured out how to do that job with fewer satellites.” Further, “we have seen them struggle to get access to capital.”
Government launches also could see a slump, Bruno said. “We are at that point where we just recapitalized America’s space assets and now the launch cadence falls off for about five-plus years before it picks up again,” he said. “We are introducing competition at a challenging moment. There isn’t a larger demand to support the additional players so it has to be managed. Going to two is the right number and is the right thing for the country. Trying to support more than that, I think, will create industrial base problems.”
As ULA celebrates the LSA win, it is also working on proposals for upcoming EELV competitions. ULA is still under contract for EELV phase 1 missions that were awarded to the company in 2006 before there were any competitors. “That’s a small handful of missions will will finish up next year.”
Between now and when the the Air Force starts buying launch services from new competitors, ULA and SpaceX will be competing “one mission at a time” under EELV phase 1(a) procurements. Both companies have won competitions in recent years, splitting up the market. “We tended to win the missions going to higher energy orbits that were more difficult and more critical,” said Bruno. “For large one-of-a-kind very expensive satellites, we tend to fare better.”
Bruno expects ULA and SpaceX will share the military launch business for another couple of years depending on when LSA competitors finish their rocket development and begin flying.